Automata and the birth of the UK games industry

By Mel Croucher. Posted

There is a species of insect that only hatches once every couple of decades, when the world is ready and the conditions are perfect. I am such an insect. According to the history books, I founded the UK video games industry at such a moment, and then crawled back underground to wait for the world to turn again. Here’s what happened.

I programmed my first games machine in 1955. It was a primitive metal sequencer called a Sooty Xylophone, and the program was a little row of coloured dots. The idea was to bash a colour-coded key in the order each dot appeared, but those preprogrammed sequences were boring. So I reordered them into more interesting combinations, and wrote my own sequences. The result sounded like a tin xylophone hit with a stick at random, which is exactly what is was. But hey, I was only seven years old.

A few years later, I inherited a pianola. A pianola was a sort of robot jukebox for Victorians, and the software that called the tunes was great. It was stored as holes punched into rolls of paper, and programming was simple. I got a roll of wallpaper and drew up a grid of eighty-eight squares times infinity, one square for each note on the piano keyboard and infinity representing time. If I wanted a note to play, then I punched a hole in the right place, which triggered a tiny hammer onto the associated piano string and played a pitch-perfect note. My system was made possible by a computer program invented in 1801 by Joseph Jacquard, to create geometric designs in rolls of cloth and starve French weavers to death.

An intoxicating mix of music, narrative and weird imagery, Deus Ex Machina was a fascinating interactive experiment.

It was at the end of the 1960s when I entered a room with No Entry on the door and met The Beast. I belonged to nobody, but The Beast belonged to the Ministry of Defence. The Beast was big enough to walk around inside and feel the heat coming off ranks of glass valves. Programs were written in a language no more complex than my xylophone or my pianola, and the computer code was stored as little holes on punch-cards. I knew I could make The Beast perform lewd multimedia acts, and there was no question in my mind that the true purpose of electronic brains was to entertain us. Sure enough, after six months of programming, I got the giant computer that was entrusted with the nation’s defence to beep Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in sync with a row of flashing light bulbs. And then I forgot all about computing for years.

The Commodore Pet was launched in January 1977. It looked just like the sci-fi machines we were all familiar with from Star Trek, even though the casing was made of the same tin as my Sooty Xylophone. It was blessed with 4 kilobytes, which was as much memory as The Beast, but instead of occupying an entire room, it could sit on my desk. The coding language was PET BASIC. You couldn't write a simple instruction like, "make the blob go up the screen until it hits something." You had to mask your ideas with arcane expressions which sounded worryingly suggestive: spreadsheet, RAM, nibble, byte, peek, poke. After washing my hands and growing a moustache, I set about revealing the true purpose of computers to an innocent public. And that purpose was to have fun.

Released in 1977, the Commodore PET 2001 felt as futuristic as its name.

I founded my multimedia company Automata in November 1977. Everyone was talking about computers, but nobody actually owned one. Ignoring this fact was a handicap, but I never once questioned my belief. I knew for certain that computers were for people to play games on. All I had to do was find those people. There were no computer magazines, or enthusiast clubs, or ready-made software, but we did have radio, and the boss of my local commercial radio station, Radio Victory, was someone I went to school with. Using the fact that we once played mother and daughter in the school play, I went to him with an idea. My idea was that sizeable numbers of computer owners across the South of England would receive my video game signals through their radio sets and get so excited by the concept of computer entertainment they would want to contact me. Then I could try and fleece them for money.

My first on-air video game was broadcast on the 257FM waveband late at night on December 15th 1977, and I topped and tailed the coded signals with a crummy prize competition to try and stop my audience switching off. After the first broadcast I got three responses. But by the end of the season the number of radio listeners with access to a computer was beginning to grow, and I was given a mainstream evening slot every Thursday night. And that’s how I found myself midwife to a new branch of the entertainment business.

Mel Croucher (seated, holding a candlestick telephone) with the original Automata team from 1977.

By the time the British home computing boom exploded, my little company had become the best-selling video games outfit in the land and the electronic world was our oyster, mainly because we had almost no competition. Between 19th November 1977 and when I quit on All Fool’s Day 1985, we produced around six dozen titles. We were absolutely fearless because there was nothing to fear, and we never obeyed any of the rules because there weren’t any rules to obey.
For the next thirty years, as the multinationals took over and videogames grew into a $120 billion industry, I found the creativity and excitement of the early days completely stifled by derivative, repetitive pap. Technically brilliant, visually stunning, emotionally bereft. Until now.

As in all revolutions, the wheel must turn full circle, and video games are no exception. The direct distribution I helped create is back, thanks to global downloading. The stranglehold of the corporates I scorned is breaking down, thanks to crowdfunding and in-game sales. Like those little insects in their underground holes, all we have had to do is wait patiently for the world to turn. And prepare to fly again.

Life of Pi(mania)

Pimania, released in 1982, was an adventure game with an eccentric range of objects to interact with, including cuddly toys, musical instruments and porked pies.Founded in the seventies, Automata UK leapt to fame in the following decade with a string of ambitious and often surreally funny games. Pimania, released in 1982, was an adventure game with a real-world prize as a hook: if they successfully solved all the clues, the winner would discover the location of a golden sundial worth thousands. Automata’s most famous title, though, was 1984’s Deus Ex Machina, a kind of experimental, interactive art installation that mixed animation, music and celebrity voices (hello Jon Pertwee). Although it wasn’t a hit, Deus Ex Machina is still remembered today as one of the most inventive games to emerge from the UK’s early games industry. As for the golden sundial: it was finally located one rainy day in Sussex - a full three years after Pimania’s release.

You can read the other parts of Mel Croucher's series here:

Part 1: Automata and the birth of the UK games industry

Part 2: How to grow a raspberry Pi

Part 3: How I made Deus Ex Machina

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